Sometime in the beginning of the last century, my great grandmother, Maria Francesca Clementina Pacello, came over from The Old Country, bringing with her a much coveted sauce recipe that my grandmother Leora made whenever she needed to feed a crowd. Which was often. My aunts and mom all make the sauce, in which short ribs and meatballs simmer for hours, but someone isn’t telling the full story because each of their sauces tastes a little different. Two years ago I finally convinced my mom’s youngest sister to part with the recipe. Which is less a recipe and more a conversation.
My first attempt two years ago went down very well with my now-husband and his friend Alec. Coincidentally, the next evening was when my husband proposed. When my aunt heard the news, her first reaction was “It must’ve been the sauce…”
Nonna Pacello’s Sauce with Short Ribs and Meatballs
I’m sure I’ll get calls from my mom and aunts should they read this because, like these formidable women, I’ve played around with the recipe over time and have made a few adjustments of my own. Namely, I don’t use seasoning salt in the meatballs and instead use a smidge each of dried thyme, ground mustard, curry powder, paprika and celery seed. I also make fresh breadcrumbs in the food processor. Oh, and I like to pour in a splash of Barbera d’Alba, which of course we polish off with dinner.
One final note, my great grandmother hailed from Napoli, which is why there is an unexpected regional ingredient in both the sauce and meatballs—finely chopped green bell pepper.
4 -5 beef short ribs, salt & peppered
2-3 sweet onions, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2-3 bay leaves
28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes
28-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
2 28-ounce cans tomato puree
¾ cup tomato paste
Fresh oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil
Dash of cinnamon
2 TBSP sugar
6-8 garlic cloves, pressed
½ cup red wine
2/3 pound each of ground sirloin, pork, veal
½-3/4 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
Salt & Pepper
Seasoning salt (or a dash each of dried thyme, ground mustard, curry powder, paprika and celery seed)
To make sauce: Cover bottom of a large pan (I use an enormous 13 1/4 quart Le Creuset French oven) with olive oil and heat on high for 3 minutes. Brown short ribs. Add ¾ each of chopped onion and bell pepper (the remaining 1/4 of each will go into the meatballs). Sauté over medium heat until tender.
Add bay leaves, tomatoes, herbs, cinnamon, sugar, garlic, wine. Add meatballs (recipe to follow). Reduce heat to low and simmer for two-three hours. Remove bay leaves before serving.
To make meatballs: Mix ground sirloin, pork, veal with remaining onion & green bell pepper, eggs, breadcrumbs, salt & pepper, and seasoning salt. Roll into golf ball-sized balls and drop into sauce. This will make a LOT of meatballs – about 15.
Serve over bucatini, and sprinkle with marjoram and parm. Leftovers are great baked with rigatoni and mozzarella.